By Emma Thomas – Full-time mum to a 18-month-old, part-time blogger and writer, with a background as a Kindy Teacher/Director
It takes a village to raise a child. This old African proverb is full of great wisdom but can be hard to implement in our busy modern lives!
Do you remember summer holidays as a child spending hours playing with your cousins or the neighbourhood kids? The older kids were leaders, keeping the group safe (or leading the way into mischief!). The young children followed and learnt through observation and trial and error. Everyone had fun and came home safely at the end of the afternoon.
While we aim to give our children these opportunities sometimes it can be hard if our families don’t live close by or our streets aren’t safe places to play.
In education settings, we tend to segregate our children by age. This allows for optimal educational instruction and means that children are at the same level of social and emotional development. It is easier for teachers to plan a targeted educational program when they are focused on a specific age group. It also allows opportunities for age-appropriate activities to be provided and supports children in their learning.
However there are many benefits to allowing children to interact in mixed-age groups, as adults, we don’t always stick with others our own age! In long daycare centres children are able to mix during family grouping times and in outdoor play areas. This gives them time to develop relationships with children of different ages and abilities.
As parents, we also need to be intentional about providing opportunities for our children to experience this type of mixed age group play. We might set up play dates with other families who have older and younger children. We could attend a local playgroup or holiday program which caters to a range of ages or set up neighbourhood playdates.
While you may worry about your child being exposed to more grown-up language or ideas from older children, in my experience the risks are far outweighed by the benefits.
What are the benefits of mixed age group play?
Children develop leadership skills
When playing in mixed-age groups children have the opportunity to develop and try out their leadership skills. It’s a lot easier to test your leadership on younger children than on your same-age peers! This is also a great opportunity for children who may be shy or reserved when interacting with their peers to come out of their shell and start acting as a leader.
Entering new social situations can be scary (even as an adult!). If children are given the opportunity to have a sibling by their side when entering a new situation it will help to develop their confidence and resilience.
Playing alongside younger children allows children to feel competent and confident in their own abilities.
Trying New Activities
When children play in mixed-age groups they are more likely to try different activities. When playing with peers of the same age children tend to default to the favourite shared games. Playing with younger and older children forces children to explore outside their comfort zone and engage with new games and activities.
Children of the same age tend to think in similar ways, introducing younger and older children sparks different ways of thinking, investigating and problem-solving.
Mixed-age group play fosters engagement in collaborative learning. Children tend to work together to complete shared projects. With same-aged peers we see more competition, while in mixed groups children tend towards collaboration.
I hope you are able to give your children the opportunity to engage in mixed age group play and the chance to form lifelong friendships and memories.